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In the early hours of August 2nd, 1946, armed veterans of the Second World War successfully overthrew the corrupt sheriff’s department of McMinn County, Tennessee. In the early 1930s, Tennessee would come under the control of Democratic Party boss, E.H Crump. His political machine would dominate state politics including the governorship, and the federal senators. At the local level, smaller party machines sprung up, relying on fraudulent behavior and intimidation to acquire and maintain power. Starting in 1936, one such cog in the machine, named Paul Cantrell, was elected county sheriff of McMinn County under suspicions of election fraud. Over the next ten years, the McMinn Sheriff’s Department would, under Cantrell and his successors, run what amounted to a racketeering scheme across the county. The sheriff and his deputies received a fee for every person they booked, incarcerated, and released; the more arrests were made, the more money they received. Deputies routinely boarded buses passing through at night and dragged drowsy passengers to the jail to pay their fine for drunkenness, whether they were guilty or not. Some estimates would put the total arrests in peak years equal to 1/8th the population of the county. Additionally, owners of taverns and roadhouses paid indemnities to the sheriff so gambling and prostitution would be overlooked despite what laws existed at the time.
When many young men left to fight WW2, the police had a shortage of viable employees. Consequently, they turned towards ex-convicts to fill their ranks, only adding to the thuggish nature of their operation. When those GIs returned to McMinn County from the war, they became very fond of the drinking scene. The sheriff and his deputies, seeing a profit opportunity, began to shakedown and arrest veterans as they left the bars. Not ones to take being accosted for enjoying some alcohol lying down, the GIs formed a political party to challenge the corrupt regime of McMinn County. In the years after his election, Cantrell had gone onto the state legislature. Although 1946 he ran for McMinn County Sheriff again, as the current sheriff, Paul Mansfield, was running for state senator. During the county elections on August 1st, both factions sent armed men to guard the polls. The GIs had roughly 60 men, armed with pistols to watch the ballot casting. On the other side Paul Mansfield had deputized nearly 300 to do the same, many acting directly on Paul Cantrell’s behalf. Throughout the day, various men sent by the GI party were arrested at the polls on trumped up charges. Tensions reached their breaking point when late in the day, an elderly black farmer named Tom Gillespie, attempted to cast his vote. The man standing guard on behalf of Paul Cantrell reportedly told Tom: “N*gger, you can’t vote here.” Tom protested but the guard struck him with brass knuckles. And as Tom attempted to run away, the guard drew his pistol and shot him. Not dead, Tom Gillespie was arrested and taken off, but by this time a crowd had gathered in anger outside that polling station. Veterans were at the head of the mob, but when the same guard came out waving his pistol, a call to properly arm the GIs was made and they set off. Several deputies were sent to the GI Party’s headquarters to make arrests but were quickly disarmed and detained by those inside. After several tense hours, the anger subsisted, Paul Cantrell and the sheriff’s department thought they had stolen another election and set to ‘count’ the ballots.
In the early evening, Sgt. Bill White, who railed against his brothers-in-arms earlier in the day for not fighting back against a bunch of ‘draft dodgers’, organized a group of veterans to break into the National Guard Armory. Bill and others successfully broke in and took all the rifles, two Thompson sub-machine guns and all the ammunition they could carry. They loaded a truck with their arsenal and set off for the GI Party Headquarters. The veterans now armed effectively, surrounded the jail in Athens, TN, where the ballots were being counted. To demonstrate the level of corruption, Paul Cantrell was among the ballot counters. Bill announced to those inside: “Would you damn bastards bring those damn ballot boxes out here or we are going to set siege against the jail and blow it down!” Shots were soon fired; a deputy was shot but managed to retreat inside the jail. An uneasy stalemate broke out as those inside refused to surrender. Calls for reinforcement from a neighboring county were refused and the besieged knew they were all alone. Several Molotov cocktails were heaved into the jail but were ineffective in turning the tide. Around 2:30 AM an ambulance arrived at the jail, thinking it was to evacuate the wounded, the GIs allowed it to pass. In actuality, the ambulance was a cowardly ruse to allow Cantrell and Sheriff Mansfield to escape. They hopped in the ambulance and soon sped away, leaving those behind to fend for themselves. Soon after, the GIs began throwing dynamite over the walls of the jail courtyard, and at the jail itself. Several large explosions destroyed several police cars, while damaging the jail itself. Realizing their fate, the deputies inside surrendered. Freed from 10 years of tyranny, the townspeople started to riot in the early hours of August 2nd, targeting police cars and the property of policemen. The GIs in fact had to intervene to stop the mob from beating to death a few deputies. In the aftermath, the veterans appointed a makeshift police force of over a hundred men to keep the peace and fortify the area for a possible invasion from the state and/or men loyal to the state’s political machinery. Luckily, a peaceful transition of power occurred on August 4th, as Paul Mansfield resigned his post as sheriff and requested that the GI candidate, Knox Henry, take his place. The next day an official ballot count was conducted, showing Knox winning the election 2,175 to 1,270.
4 other GIs won their election and sought to restore honest governance in the county, with each pledging to not take anything over $5,000 in compensation. The Battle of Athens, as it would be known, was just a minor incident in the course of American history: no revolution followed and no crackdown on the citizenry. Just an example of private citizens standing up to a corrupt, tyrannical government and at all costs, ensuring a government by the people, for the people. Authored by Chris Snook
The Lessons of Athens Those who took up arms in Athens, Tennessee: wanted honest elections, a cornerstone of our Constitutional order; had repeatedly tried to get Federal or State election monitors; used armed force so as to minimize harm to the law-breakers; showed little malice to the defeated law-breakers; restored lawful government. The Battle of Athens clearly shows: how Americans can and should lawfully use armed force; why the Rule of Law requires unrestricted access to firearms; how civilians with military-type firearms can beat the forces of "law and order".